A great controversy has risen with Disney casting Halle Bailey as Ariel in the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid.
I think many of us had the same first thought:
Halle Berry? Isn’t she too old?
Then, I squinted at the screen and realized it was Halle Bailey, leading to my second thought:
Who is that? And can she sing?
The answer to the that most important second question is yes:
Like most, I was surprised that she’s not a redhead and is not as white as I am (my skin is so pale I could use it like a mirror to reflect the sun if I ever was lost in the wilderness).
And I think that’s cool and a great choice.
1. It’s a bold idea after a series of safe choices for the Disney live-action remakes.
I would describe the recent live-action remakes – Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, and The Jungle Book – as nice. They are pleasant retellings with some technical wizardry. Cinderella actually differs the most from the animated film and yet feels more traditional. Of the three, I think The Jungle Book pushes the envelope the most, but that is more due to making us believe CG animated animals are real. I haven’t yet seen Dumbo and Aladdin yet, so can’t speak to those.
This casting choice shows a break from tradition. Are we looking for a carbon copy of a story we’ve watched a thousand times or something that pays homage while bringing something fresh and new?
2. Lin Manuel Miranda is working on music for the film.
The busiest man in the entertainment industry is working on music for the film. Given his work for Hamilton (which I saw live earlier this year and it is everything I hoped for and more) and Moana and In the Heights, we can expect a more R&B / Pop feeling to some of the music. Halle Bailey’s voice would fit well with that style.
3. Have you seen the 90’s TV adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella?
This gem of a movie updates some of the songs with more modern beats and uses colorblind casting – the prince (Paolo Montalbán) is Asian while the king (Victor Garber) is white and queen (Whoopi Goldberg) is black.
And our princess?
Is played by Brandy, a Black R&B singer who happens to get a peak-shape Whitney Houston as her Fairy Godmother.
Not to mention the stepmother (the always incredible Bernadette Peters) is white while the stepsisters (Veanne Cox and Natalie Desselle) are white and black.
And their ethnicities and skin colors don’t matter for the entire story. We still swoon at the prince (I mean, look at this Prince? Isn’t he neat? Wouldn’t you say his charm is complete? Wouldn’t you say he’s a prince who has, well everything?). We believe him and Cinderella as they fall in love and never question why the prince, king, and queen don’t match hair, eye, and skin colors.
Why does this work?
Because it’s a good story with good characters.
And that transcends everything.
But, then, we have the wilds of the internet.
While many are intrigued and others are celebrating, many who grew up loving the Little Mermaid are having a hard time letting go of their image of the redheaded mermaid based on a Dutch Fairy Tale.
However well-meaning they may be, their responses sound like Jenna Maroney* on 30 Rock in the exchange below:
Tracey: But I know you’re all secretly mad because we finally have a Black Disney princess.
Jenna: You know, there actually hasn’t been a white princess since 1991.
Pete: Mulan, Pocahontas, Jasmine… Yeah she’s right.
Jenna: There are little blonde girls in this country who have no idea they can be beautiful.
*If you haven’t seen 30 Rock, just note you never want to sound like Jenna Maroney.
I get where these people are coming from. Change is hard and something we loved as a child, like The Little Mermaid, has a special place.
It’s the original Star Wars of 90’s era Disney princess movies (Star Wars reference worked in – check).
It’s the movie we grew up watching a thousand times. It’s the movie that raised the bar for animated musical movies, set the standard, and led to many girls using forks as hairbrushes.
Ariel is an iconic image.
So iconic, that Hipster Ariel is a major meme.
If Disney had cast a blonde or brunette and not dyed the actress’s hair, I think there would have been a similar backlash.
Why is inclusion and diversity is important?
The first mental image readers have of a character is of them as white unless their name is from a non-English language. Rodriguez = Latino. Yao = Asian. Achebe = African. Abdal = Arabic.
And each of these represent a continent or more of different countries, histories, nations, and cultures that are bundled together under the term “non-white”. I had to look up African and Arabic last names – I even made up the Arabic last name to see if anyone would notice.
It takes work to change the norm.
In my series, The Pippington Tales, the majority of the cast of characters is white, so I am pushing myself break that default in my own mind and make the world more diverse.
This is why in The Lady and the Frog I added the country of Castallar to bring in a more Spanish language influence and have the ability to add Latino characters later in the series. Eventually, I hope to add a Latino Rapunzel who must battle pirates. In The Matchgirl and the Magician, the father of the main character, and the leading man, is Rompell, who is from a middle east inspired country.
But, these are just small steps. I have a long way to go to build a world as diverse as the real one.
So, I think it’s great that Disney has made a bold choice and I would love to see future fantasy and fairy tale movies that focus more on the story than on the appearance of their characters.
- What do you think of Disney’s choice to play The Little Mermaid?
- What is your favorite example of a great story with diverse characters that doesn’t focus on “hey, look how diverse this cast is!”?
- Who do you want to see as Prince Eric?